After a break of over a month, owing to India's participation in the AFC Asian Cup, the fifth season of the India Super League is back to business again, with as many as six teams vying for a top four spot. On Sunday, the league will witness its first high-profile match post the break as table-toppers Bengaluru FC take on second-placed Mumbai City FC at the Mumbai Football Arena. Carles Cuadrat's Bengaluru haven't tasted defeat yet this season, with eight wins and three draws while Mumbai City FC, under Portuguese coach Jorge Costa, showed good results employing a pragmatic style of play.
Going into the match, Bengaluru will feel like they are little more under pressure as compared to their opponents. Quality wise, surely they are better, but the pressure of maintaining the unbeaten streak and also considering the long gap " during which some of the club's key players were also involved with the national team duty in UAE " might end up being decisive factors in the match. The likes of Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu have all had a busy last few weeks, leading them to not getting much rest because the Asian Cup. It will be interesting to see head coach Cuadrat's playing XI on Sunday.
The selection part is vital for Cuadrat because the team also has its fair share of injured players. Nishu Kumar suffered a knee injury during their game against ATK in December and his replacement in that match, Rino Anto, is also struggling to regain fitness ahead of Sunday's match. In the absence of both, it is likely that Harmanjot Khabra will start at the right-back position.
Bengaluru's attack will be bolstered by the return of their star striker Miku from injury. The Venezuelan forward had to miss most of the matches this season due to an ankle injury and he had to undergo treatment in Spain. If Chhetri, scorer of five goals for Bengaluru this season, doesn't make it to the playing XI, Miku has to step up and the lead the attack for his team. Cuadrat will look also to his influential midfield trio of Erik Paartalu, Dimas Delgado and Xisco Hernandez to create opportunities from the middle.
"It's nice to have this unbeaten run going, but the key aim is to book a place in the play-off stages as soon as we can. Whether the long break will affect our momentum or not, only time will tell. But we have been working hard and hope to keep the run going for as long as we can," Cuadrat said ahead of the match.
It is vital for Cuadrat to maintain his team's momentum after the break. Now that Miku is fit to play and his team is ahead by three points in the league table, despite having played a match less, Cuadrat can think about resting Chhetri. But against Mumbai, who have a better defensive record than most of other teams " 12 goals conceded in 12 matches, second only to Bengaluru " Chhetri's goal-scoring prowess might come in handy.
Mumbai City FC's season didn't start the season with a bang. In the first four matches, they suffered two defeats, including a 0-5 drubbing at the hands of Goa. But as the season progressed, Jorge Costa's side has improved significantly. They are undefeated in the last eight matches and last time they played at their home, the team made easy work of their opponents Kerala Blasters FC, scoring as many as six goals in the match.
A lot of Mumbai's good form this season has to do with the display of their foreign players. Moudou Sougou has been vital when it comes to goal-scoring. The Senegalese forward netted nine goals for his team this season while Rafael Bastos' exploits in the wing were critical in breaking down defences multiple times.
Unlike Bengaluru, Mumbai City FC do not have many injury problems, though Joyner Lourenco picked up an injury right before the break. The team agreed a loan deal with Jamshedpur FC for defender Sanjay Balmuchu, who is set to be the replacement of Lourenco.
Bengaluru might have a superior squad, but Costa might be feeling more upbeat about Sunday's tie. His team had a remarkable turnaround post the defeat against Goa, and since then they have managed to implement their plans to perfection. Costa has spoken before about his style of play, putting emphasis on getting all three points instead of developing a philosophy. Mumbai might not be the most attractive team in the league, but recent form shows that they do know how to win a match.
Costa will also take confidence from his team's performance against Bengaluru when they met first time around this season. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but Mumbai were highly competitive and threatened to take the match away despite playing with 10 men.
Both the teams have proven goal-scorers in their ranks, but it will be more interesting to witness the battle in the midfield. Delgado, who has been in terrific form this season, will have his task cut against the likes of Raynier Fernandes and Paulo Machado. Playing at home, if Mumbai City halt Bengaluru's run on Sunday, they would've taken a significant step in sealing a playoff spot.